The Role and Experience of the Angels at the Ascension

The Feast of the Ascension is often neglected today. It is tucked into a nearby Sunday, it’s role as the fortieth day, jettisoned. But even in those places that still honor it with a Thursday Solemnity, there is still a difficulty in appreciating the full glory of that day. In this post, following the Scriptures and the teaching of some of the ancient Fathers of the Church, we can investigate some of the more hidden glory of this magnificent event.

The fundamental source for these reflections is Jean Cardinal Danielou’s book The Angels and Their Mission: According to the Fathers of the Church. The references to the Fathers in this post are fully footnoted in his book, but some of the scriptural passages below represent my own additions.

We can begin with a parabolic prelude – Jesus told at least two parables that the Fathers of the Church interpret to represent the angels:

    • Then Jesus told them this parable: “What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the pasture and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders, comes home, and calls together his friends and neighbors to tell them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep!’ In the same way, I tell you that there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous ones who do not need to repent. (Luke 15:3-7)
    • Or what woman who has ten silver coins and loses one of them does not light a lamp, sweep her house, and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls together her friends and neighbors to say, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of God’s angels over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10)

Gregory Nazianzus interprets this parable as Christ entering into heaven at the Ascension and, after having recovered the lost sheep and the Lost Drachma and calling together the angels to share his joy.

Indeed, there is a whole tradition, among the Fathers but going back much further into the early Church which sees the lost sheep as human beings, and flock which the Good Shepherd “leaves” in order to search for the sheep as the angels. Origen sets it forth and Methodius of Philippi writes: “We must see the ninety-nine sheep as a representation of the Powers, Principalities and Dominations whom the Head and Shepherd has left behind to go down and seek out the one lost sheep.”  Gregory of Nyssa adds: “We mankind, are the lost sheep…and have strayed from the other spiritual creates [i.e. the angels].

Hence we are given a picture of joy as Christ re-enters heaven with the lost sheep of humanity.

The Picture of the Ascension given by the Lord: Jesus prophecies his ascension in John’s Gospel as something which Nathaniel will see. The Lord’s description also shows the role of the angels

Jesus said to Nathaniel, “Do you believe just because I told you I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” Then He declared, “Truly, truly, I tell you, you will see heaven open and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. (John 1:50-51)

Here then is a picture of Jesus ascending, not as a lone figure,

A picture from the Psalms: Church Fathers Eusebius, Chrysostom, Justin and Athanasius  say that  the virtues (i.e. angels) of heaven, seeing him begin to ascend, rise and surround him to form an escort proclaiming his ascension as they cried: Rise up eternal gates and the King of glory will enter!” Gregory of Nyssa adds, that at first the higher angels do not recognize Christ since he has put on the poor tunic of humanity and because his garments were stained with blood. And herein comes a questioning and wondering dialogue back and forth that is from Psalm 27 but which the ancient Fathers apply to the moment of the Ascension: 

The lower ranking angels who have escorted Jesus cry out to the higher ranking angles of heaven:

Lift up your heads, O gates! Be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of Glory may enter!

And from within the heavenly angels answer:

Who is this King of Glory?

And the escorting angels answer:

The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O gates! Be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of Glory may enter! (Psalm 24:7-9) 

Eusebius also cites Psalm 47 as fulfilled in the Ascension through the praises of the Angels: 

God ascends amid shouts of joy, the LORD with the sound of trumpets. Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises! For God is King of all the earth; sing profound praises to Him. God reigns over the nations; God is seated on His holy throne. For the shields of the earth belong to God; He is highly to be exalted. (Ps 47:5-9)

Another picture from Scripture (Isaiah 63:1-3) is applied by the Fathers to the Ascension where the angels of heaven, seeing Christ  approach, cry out:

Who is this coming from Edom, from Bozrah with crimson-stained garments? Who is this robed in splendor, marching in the greatness of His strength?

Jesus answers:

“It is I who speak in righteousness, mighty to save.”

The Angels ask:

Why are Your clothes red, and Your garments like one who treads the winepress?

Jesus answers:

“I have trodden the winepress alone, (Isaiah 63:1-3)

The exultation of our humanity In Christ’s Ascension is also a principle developed in Scripture and by the Father.  Thought the angelic nature remains superior to human nature in the order of creation, Christ’s incarnation, resurrection and ascension have exalted our humanity in his. The Book of Hebrews says,

[Jesus] has taken his seat at the right hand of the Majesty on high. So He became as far superior to the angels as the name He has inherited is excellent beyond theirs. For to which of the angels did God ever say: “You are My Son; today I have become Your Father” (Heb 1:3-4)

For it is not to angels that He has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But somewhere it is testified in these words: “What is man that You are mindful of him, or the son of man that You care for him? You made him for a while lower than the angels; and now You have crowned him with glory and honor and placed everything under his feet. (Heb 2: 5-8)

These texts speak to Christ’s superiority to the Angels. As God, he was always superior to the angels but, in hypostatically uniting himself to a human nature, raising it gloriously and ascending with that glorified human nature, he has exalted us all.

St. John Chrysostom says of the Ascension: 

Today we are raised up into heaven, we who seemed unworthy even of  earth. [In Christ, and as members of his Body] We are exalted above the heavens; we arrive at the kingly throne. The [human] nature which caused the Cherubim to keep guard over paradise is seated today above the Cherubim. Was not such a glory beyond all expression? But he rose above the angels, he passed the cherubim, he went higher than the Seraphim, he bypassed the Thrones. He didn’t stop until He arrived at the very throne of God.

So, the Feast of the Ascension is our feast too. In baptism we died with Christ and rose with him to new life. In the Ascension of Christ, we also ascend. Hence, in Christ and as members of Christ’s Body through baptism, we are mystically seated with him at the Father’s right. In Christ and by his ascension our lowly nature is glorified and we hear the call “come up higher.” For now we never cease to honor the angels who by nature are superior to us and care for us. And yet, by grace alone and in Christ we have ascended with him to the highest place. On account of  which the angels marvel and sing God’s praises.

The Ascension is the counterpart of the fall in Eden, but we are not simply restored to an earthly paradise, we are taken to the heavenly one!

Is this why Satan rebelled? There is an ancient tradition that the angels where shown God’s plan and that Lucifer, a high ranking angel, recoiled at the idea of God joining himself to the mere “mud dolls” of humanity. Inspiring a rebellion he waged war in the heavens and was cast out by St. Michael and the other angels. Now he roams the earth, deeply envious of human beings and seeks to debase and destroy him. This is hinted at in Scripture in Revelation 12, but the details of the reason for Satan’s wrath are more in the realm of tradition and speculation. 

Here then are some reflections on the glorious feast of the Ascension from Scripture, and the teachings of the Fathers of the Church.

A Memorial Day Meditation on Honor

Back in 2014, I celebrated one of the most remarkable funerals of my 30+ years as a priest. With the body present, I sang a Requiem Mass for a man who died ten years before I was born. And his story speaks to the fallen soldiers we honor on this Memorial Day.

On January 1, 1951, Private First Class Arthur Richardson of A Company, 1st Battalion, 19th Infantry Regiment, 24th Infantry Division went north with his platoon into what is now North Korea. The platoon was overtaken by a much larger group of North Korean soldiers and he was taken prisoner. This was the last that was heard of Pfc. Arthur Richardson. It was reported to his wife later that month that he was missing in action. In 1954, he was declared Killed in Action, though his body was not recovered and no definitive word had been received about him. He was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star.

It now seems certain that he died in or near a Prisoner of War camp in Suan since his remains were returned by North Korea in 1994, along with those of as many as 800 other American soldiers from that region. After years of painstaking work, the U.S. Army was recently able to definitively identify his remains using DNA evidence, and informed his family.

The family asked me if I would offer the old Latin Requiem Mass for him since this was the only form of the Mass he had ever known. And so on September 18, 2014, I had the great privilege of celebrating a Missa Cantata Requiem Mass. (See photo above).

091814-BThe burial that followed at Arlington was with full military honors. (See left – click to enlarge)  Horses pulled the caisson that bore the body of Pfc Richardson and all were saddled, but the horses on the left had riders while those on the right did not. Also in the procession was a marching band, a group of about a dozen riflemen, a bugler, and the honor guard. It was a very moving sight. The band played “Soul of My Savior,” “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” “God of Our Fathers,” and “America.”

What is honor? The full etymology of the word is debated. But what seems most likely is that it comes from the Latin word honos, which, though translated as “honor,” also points to the word “onus,” which means “weight” or refers to something that is heavy. Hence, to “honor” someone is to appreciate the weight, significance, or burden of something he has done. It is to acknowledge that he carried a great burden well, that he withstood a heavy load, that what he did was weighty, significant.
Our soldiers, police officers, and first responders are deserving of our honor, for they put their lives on the line so that others can live, be more free, and experience abundance. None of us can fail to appreciate the burdensome weight that many carry so that we can live well, freely, and comfortably. Freedom is not free; it is costly. Jesus says, Greater love has no man than he would lay down his life for his friends (Jn 15:13).
War remains controversial (as it should). But soldiers do not create the politics or injustice they are sent to address. They are simply told that there is a danger to be addressed, an injustice to be ended, and so they go. Private First Class Arthur Richardson went north during the Korean War. He did not return to us. But he carried well the great weight of being a solider. He also carried the weight of our collective human sinfulness (which is what brings war) and felt its burden keenly. He gave his life.
It was a privilege for me to render honor and prayers for his sacrifice. I did so not only as a priest, but also as a citizen of the United States. That day in 2014, both Church and State gave due honor to our brother. We recognized the honos, the onus, the weightiness of his sacrifice and the burden he carried. We rendered thanks to him and buried him at last in a place of great honor, where the weight of human struggle and honor is visible in the 400,000 white tombstones standing like silent sentinels whispering, “Honor, honor to those who have carried the burden of our struggles.”
Honorable Private First Class Arthur Richardson (Bronze Star and Purple Heart awardee), rest in peace.
And to all soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice we render due thanks, reverence and honor this Memorial Day of 2020

To fallen soldiers let us sing,
Where no rockets fly nor bullets wing,
Our broken brothers let us bring
To the Mansions of the Lord

No more weeping,
No more fight,
No prayers pleading through the night,
Just Divine embrace,
Eternal light,
In the Mansions of the Lord

Where no mothers cry
And no children weep,
We shall stand and guard
Though the angels sleep,
Oh, through the ages safely keep
The Mansions of the Lord

Love Lifted Me: A Homily for the Ascension of the Lord

In more dioceses than not, the Feast of the Ascension is celebrated this Sunday. The liturgist in me regrets the move from Thursday, but here we are any way. Let’s ascend with the Lord, three days late!

This marvelous feast is not merely about something that took place two thousand years ago, for though Christ our head has ascended, we the members of His body are ascending with Him. Because He was ascended, we, too, have ascended. In my own life as a Christian, I am brought higher every year by the Lord, who is drawing me up with Him. This is not some mere slogan, but something I am actually experiencing. An old song says, “I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore. Very deeply stained with sin, sinking to rise no more. But the master of the sea, heard my despairing cry. And from the waters lifted me. Now safe am I. Love Lifted me when nothing else could help. Love lifted me!”

If we are faithful, the feast of the Lord’s Ascension is our feast, too. Let’s look at it from three perspectives.

I. The Fact of the Ascension – The readings today describe a wondrous event witnessed by the Apostles. By His own power, the Lord is taken to Heaven. In so doing, He opens a path for us, too. The gates of paradise swing open again. Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in! (Psalm 24:7) In Christ, man returns to God. Consider three things about the Ascension:

A. The Reality – Imagine the glory of this moment! Scripture says, As they were looking on, he was lifted up and cloud took him from their sight … they were looking intently in the sky as he was going (Acts 1:9). So impressive was the sight that the angels had to beckon them to get along to Jerusalem as the Lord had said, “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Yes, it was glorious. Jesus had once said as a summons to faith, What if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? (John 6:62) He had also encouraged them saying, Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man (John 1:51). So here is a glorious reality and a fulfillment of what Jesus had said.

B.The Rescue – In the Ascension, it does not seem that the Lord entered Heaven alone. As we have remarked, in His mystical body we also ascend with Him. Consider this remarkable text that affirms that: Therefore it is said, When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men. In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is he who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things (Eph 4:8ff). Yes, the Lord had earlier (just after his death) descended to Sheol, awakened the dead, and preached the Gospel to them (cf 1 Peter 4:6). Now for those He had justified came the moment to ascend, with Jesus as a “host,” as an army of former captives now set free. Behold the great procession that enters behind Christ through the now-opened gates of Heaven: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, Judith, Deborah, David, Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Malachi, John the Baptist, … and, one day, you! Yes, this is a great rescue. Adam and his descendants have not simply been restored to some paradise-like garden; they have entered Heaven.

C.The Rejoicing – Consider how this once captive train sings exultantly as they follow Christ upward to Heaven. The liturgy today puts before us a likely song they sang: God mounts his throne to shouts of Joy! The Lord amid trumpet blasts. All you peoples clap your hands, shout to God with cries of gladness, for the Lord the most high, the awesome is the great king over all the earth. God reigns over the nations, God sits upon his holy throne (Psalm 47:6-7). I also have it on the best of authority that they were singing this old gospel song: “I’m so glad Jesus lifted me!” as well as this old Motown song: “Your love is lifting me higher than I’ve ever been lifted before!” More on this tomorrow from the Fathers of the Church.

II. The Fellowship of the Ascension – We have already remarked that, when Christ ascends, we ascend. Why and how? Scripture says, Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor 12:27). It also says, All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. By baptism we were buried together with him so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God the Father, we too might live a new and glorious life. For if we have been united with him by likeness to his death we shall be united with him by likeness to his resurrection (Rom 6:3ff). When Christ died, we died. When Christ rose, we rose. When He ascends, we ascend.

But, you may say, He is in glory while I am still here. How is it that I am ascended or ascending? Consider a humorous example using our physical bodies. When I get on an elevator and press the button for the top floor, the top of my head gets there before the soles of my feet, but the whole body will get there unless some strange loss of integrity or tragic dismemberment takes place. In an analogous way, so it is with Jesus’ mystical body. In Christ, our Head, we are already in glory. Some members of His Body have already gotten there. We who come later will get there too, provided we remain members of His Body. Yes, we are already ascended in Christ, our Head. We are already enthroned in glory with Him, if we hold fast and stay a member of His Body. This is the fellowship of the Ascension.

III. The Fruitfulness of the Ascension – Jesus does not return to Heaven to abandon us. He is more present to us than we are to ourselves. He is with us always to the end of the age (cf Matt 28:20). In ascending, without abandoning us, He goes to procure some very important things. Consider four of them:

A. Holy Ghost power – Jesus teaches very clearly that He is ascending in order to send us the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you (Jn 16:7ff). He also says, These things I have spoken to you, while I am still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (Jn 14:25ff). I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come (Jn 16:13-14). So the Lord goes in order that with the Father, He might send the Holy Spirit to live within us as in a temple. In this way, and through the Eucharist, He will dwell with us even more intimately than when He walked this earth.

B. Harvest – Jesus says, And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me (John 12:32). While the immediate context of this verse is the crucifixion, the wonder of John’s gospel is that he often intends double meanings. Clearly Christ’s glorification is His crucifixion, but it also includes His resurrection and ascension. So, from His place in glory, Christ is drawing all people to Himself. He is also bestowing grace on us from His Father’s right hand to be His co-workers in the harvest: But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). Yes, from His place in glory, Christ is bringing in a great harvest. As He said in Scripture, Do you not say, “Four months more and then the harvest”? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying “One sows and another reaps” is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor (Jn 4:35-38). Harvest! It is the Lord’s work from Heaven in which we participate.

C. Help – At the Father’s right hand, Jesus intercedes for us. Scripture says, Consequently he is able, for all time, to save those who draw near to God through him, since he lives always to make intercession for them (Heb 7:25). The Lord links his ascension to an unleashing of special power: Amen, amen, I say to you, he who believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I go to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son (Jn 14:12).

We must not understand asking in the name of Jesus as a mere incantation, for to ask in His name means to ask in accord with His will. Yet we must come to experience the power of Jesus to draw us up to great and wondrous things in His sight. Despite the mystery of iniquity all about us, we trust that Christ is conquering, even in the puzzling and apparent victories of this world’s rebellion. In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Though, at present we do not see everything subject to him, yet we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor … so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2:8-9; 14-15). Thus, from Heaven we have the help of the Lord’s grace which, if we will accept it, is an ever-present help unto our salvation.

D. Habitation – Jesus indicates that in going to Heaven, He is preparing a place for us: In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also (Jn 14:2ff). Yes, Jesus has the blueprints out and the hard hat on. He is overseeing the construction of a mansion for each of us that we may dwell with Him, the Father, and the Spirit forever.

Here, then, are the ways that Christ, by His love, is lifting us higher than we’ve ever been lifted before. Yes, love lifted me when nothing else could help; love lifted me.

Here’s a modernized version of the hymn:

 

On the Power of Liturgy and Prayer

There is a text from the Acts of the Apostles (read Tuesday at Mass) that sets forth quite well some of the qualities of the Sacred Liturgy. Although the “liturgy” cited in this passage is not a Mass, the description should apply to all our liturgies; from the Liturgy of the Hours to baptism, from a penance service to a full sung Mass. Let’s look at the passage and learn from it the power of liturgy to deliver, instruct, and transform us and the world.

About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying
and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened,
there was suddenly such a severe earthquake
that the foundations of the jail shook;
all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose.
When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open,
he drew his sword and was about to kill himself,
thinking that the prisoners had escaped.
But Paul shouted out in a loud voice,
“Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.”
He asked for a light and rushed in and,
trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas.
Then he brought them out and said,
“Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus
and you and your household will be saved.”
And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house.
And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds;
and he was baptized at once, he and all his family (Acts 15:25-33).

DeterminationAbout midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened … Here they are in an awful place, a deep dungeon with rats and filth all about, and yet they are singing.

An old hymn reminds us to persevere in praise: “Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, ‘It is well with my soul, it is well.’” Yes, happiness is an inside job. There may be times when we don’t feel emotionally ready to praise God, but we have to command our soul. In the words of the psalm, I will bless the Lord at all times. His praise shall continually be in my mouth (Psalm 34:1).

Note that this is communal not personal prayer, and thus it is a kind of liturgy. They are singing hymns, a form of communal and liturgical prayer. More literally, the Greek text says that they were singing praises (humneo) to God. “Hymn” comes from humneo. Perhaps they were singing psalms or perhaps they were singing newly composed hymns such as we see in Philippians 2:5-11, Ephesians 1:3-14, or Colossians 1:15-19. But note their determination to praise the Lord anyway. Such praises will bring blessings, for when praises go up, blessings come down.

The Church must always be determined to celebrate the liturgy. The last thing we should ever consider stopping is the Mass! Recall how many priests and bishops locked up in prisons were earnest to obtain even the slightest scraps of bread or drops of wine in order to celebrate the Mass. Recall the many martyred priests during troubled times in England who risked everything to celebrate the Holy Mass. We must always be determined to pray, and whenever possible, to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy, even at great risk.

Disturbance… suddenly such a severe earthquake that the foundations of the jail shook … Does our worship rock this world to its foundations? It should. The world ought to know and experience that we are at prayer! We should rock this world with our refusal to be discouraged at what it dishes out.

Further, good prayer, preaching, and the simple presence of the Church ought to shake things up a bit. It is said that a good preacher will comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Each of us has a little of both within us.

Note that the early Christians were often arrested for being “disturbers of the peace.” They said politically dangerous things like “Jesus is Lord” rather than “Caesar is Lord.” Religiously, they upset the order by announcing that many of the old rites were now fulfilled. Temple worship was over. Jesus was the true temple and Lord, and the Eucharist now supplanted the lucrative temple rites. Morally, the Church shook things up by demanding love of one’s enemies and that people no longer live as did the pagans, in the futility of their minds. These things and more tended to disturb the political, social, and religious order. Liturgically, we gather to celebrate and learn many earthshaking truths and to be liberated from the hold of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Yes, the presence of the early Church was a kind of earthquake. When the Church is strong she not only consoles; she disturbs and even rocks things to their foundations by the simple declaration, “Thus says the Lord” and by our praise of Him who is true Lord and Sovereign King, far outranking all other kings and those who demand our loyalty and conformity.

Deliverance… all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose. The liturgy of praise and worship of God should effect an ongoing deliverance. The prayer of the Church in her liturgy should set people free: prison doors swing open, chains fall loose, and increasing freedom is granted to faithful.

I am a witness to this and I pray that you are as well. I have attended and celebrated Mass every day for more than thirty-eight years now. In that time, through praise, hearing God’s Word, being instructed in God’s Word, receiving the Word Made Flesh in Holy Communion, and deep abiding fellowship with believers, I am a changed man. Many shackles have come loose. A new mind and heart have been given to me and the prison cells of anxiety are no longer. Deliverance is what happened to us when the Lord took us out of the kingdom of darkness and into the Kingdom of Light. Through the liturgy, that deliverance becomes deeper, richer, broader, and higher.

DignityWhen the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, thinking that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted out in a loud voice, “Do no harm to yourself; we are all here.” The liturgy we celebrate is that of the Catholic Church. The term Catholic refers to the universality of the Church’s mission. All are to be called.

One effect of the liturgy on us should be that we neither hate nor exclude anyone. Paul and Silas do not gloat over the misfortune of their jailer. Knowing his dignity, they call out to him, even at the risk of their lives.

The Church, too, seeks the welfare and salvation of even our most bitter opponents. Our liturgy is celebrated not only for our friends but for the whole world.

The Church is Catholic; all are called. Painting a picture of the Church, Scripture says, I [John] looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands (Rev 7:9). I realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. Everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name (Acts 10: 34-35, 43).

Discipleship[The jailer] asked for a light and rushed in and, trembling with fear, he fell down before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you and your household will be saved.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.

Making disciples (not just members) is a primary job of the Church. To be a disciple is to be a follower of the Lord, but the word “disciple” also comes from the same Latin root (discere) as the word “learning.” Thus, the Church in her liturgy not only worships the Lord, she instructs the faithful and supplies the sacraments.

Note that the jailer asks for light. Do not think of this as merely a practical request. Asking for light is asking for the enlightenment that comes from Faith and Baptism. The Church in her liturgy and by her witness supplies light and acclimates the faithful to that light.

The jailer, having asked for the light, been instructed, and become accustomed to the light, is baptized.

Though the worship of God is always the first purpose of liturgy, here  are some other goals of and a description of true liturgy, one that rocks the world and yet delivers the faith, forming the people in the beauty of God’s grace. Do you and your fellow parishioners see the liturgy this way or do you see it as distant, even boring? See what this Scripture passage teaches about the truest goals and nature of every liturgy, great or small, in the Church.

Why Did St. Paul Get Arrested at Philippi?

At daily Mass, we are reading the story of St. Paul’s arrival in Philippi and later of his arrest, beating, and imprisonment. It serves as a kind of metaphor for the radical nature of true Christianity and why it so perturbs many in this world. The Christian faith, its message, and the transformation it can effect can be very unsettling to a world that literally and figuratively “banks on” sin. Let’s consider this lesser- known story and see what it ought to mean for us if we take our Christian faith seriously and do not try to “tame” it.

Philippi was the first “European” city that Paul evangelized when he came across from Asia Minor. Arriving at the port of Philippi in Macedonia, Paul and Silas went right to work evangelizing. One of their first converts was Lydia, a wealthy woman from Thyatira who was a dealer in purple cloth; other converts followed.

Once when we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit by which she predicted the future. She earned a great deal of money for her owners by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and the rest of us, shouting, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who are telling you the way to be saved.” She kept this up for many days. Finally, Paul became so troubled that he turned around and said to the spirit, “In the name of Jesus Christ I command you to come out of her!” At that moment the spirit left her.

When the owners of the slave girl realized that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace to face the authorities. They brought them before the magistrates and said, “These men are Jews, and are throwing our city into an uproar by advocating customs unlawful for us Romans to accept or practice.”

The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks (Acts 16:16-24).

Note the heart of the problem: St. Paul, in setting the slave girl free of her demon has deprived her “owners” of the income they derived from her sad state. They were banking on her bad condition and profiting from her trouble. In the name and power of Jesus Christ, St. Paul sets her free. His action draws deep anger from the “owners.” He has rocked their world; he has touched their pocketbooks. They find the Christian message, for it is revolutionary, to be disconcerting, threatening, and deeply unsettling.

It is a threat not only to profit but to power. In having Paul and Silas arrested, they stir up the hatred and fear of others as well, accusing them not only of preaching some strange new religion but of advocating customs forbidden to Romans. The word translated here as “customs” is ἐθη (ethe) in Greek, and refers to “religious rites or forms of worship.” In De Legibus, ii. 8, Cicero wrote, “No person shall have any separate gods, or new ones; nor shall he privately worship any strange gods, unless they be publicly allowed.” While the Romans often overlooked the private worship of unapproved gods, publicly proclaiming new and unapproved deities was an occasion for dissension and controversy and was strictly forbidden.

Frankly, the charges against Paul and Silas are true enough. In the healing they brought about, they have hindered profit. Further, they were openly proclaiming that Jesus was Lord. To our ears that is a religious proclamation, but to Roman ears it was a provocative and revolutionary statement. It was directly contrary to their proclamation that Caesar was Lord. Yes, Paul, Silas, Luke, and the others were shaking the ground in Philippi! While they were not advocating the overthrow of any government, they were announcing a power greater than Caesar, a higher King who demanded our first loyalty.

This is not the “tame” proclamation of the faith so common today. This is not a faith that is adjusted to fit into worldly categories. This is not a faith tucked in after political, philosophical, and moral preferences. This is a faith that shakes the world and brings a revolutionary challenge to its priorities. Yes, Paul and Silas pose a serious threat.

What of us today? We have gone through a long period during which we have lived the faith quietly; it generally fit quite well into the world in which we lived. Harmony and “getting along” were highly prized. Particularly here in America, Catholics wanted to reassure the general populace that our faith in no way hindered us from being full participants in the American scene and that we could fit right in and be just like everyone else. With the election of the first Catholic president back in 1960, we could say that we had made it and had been fully accepted. Finally, we fit in.

Of course the culture was not in such disrepair in those days. There was still a fairly wide moral consensus rooted in the Judeo-Christian vision. Having finally “made it,” though, we have assumed room temperature; the fire of our distinctively Catholic culture seems to have faded away. At the same time, Western culture has also largely died. (Is that really a coincidence?)

In recent years, so-called Catholic universities and other Catholic institutions have begun caving in: giving marriage benefits to same-sex bedfellows and succumbing to the HHS mandates to provide contraceptives and abortifacients. It is sad, pathetic, wrong, and cowardly—hardly the revolutionary faith that got Paul arrested.

Now we are coming full circle. We must rediscover how revolutionary our Catholic faith truly is to this world gone mad. As we proclaim healing and an allegiance to something other than this world, however, we will become increasingly obnoxious to the world around us.

Let’s consider more thoroughly the two offenses for which Paul and Silas were beaten and imprisoned:

  1. They ate away at profit – Paul drove a terrible demon out of a slave girl, a demon that afflicted her but profited her “owners.” There is a great deal of trafficking in sin and addiction today. Terrible demons afflict many people in the areas of sexuality, drugs, and alcohol. There’s a lot of money to be made peddling pornography; sex sells. Hollywood movie producers, purveyors of contraceptives, pimps, escort services, abortionists, and even traffickers in the sex slave industry also feed at the trough. Drugs and alcohol are big money makers as well. Huge numbers of products are sold using the demon of fear that says, “You’re not pretty enough,” “You’re not healthy enough,” “You’re getting old,” “You don’t drive the right car,” “You don’t wear the right clothes.” The demons of fear, low self-esteem, and greed all work together.

What would happen if the Church were to start effectively preaching unabridged Christianity? What if we started saying, “You don’t need to be afraid of your health, your age, or what people think of you. You can find serenity in Christ so that you won’t feel you need for those drugs. You can be set free from your enslavement to sex, take authority over your passions, and discover the beauty of traditional marriage.” What if we got back in the business of driving out demons?

Well, of course the answer is that we, like Paul, would be under attack. In fact, we are under attack. We are especially hated by the sex industry and the abortionists because that that issue has so much focus these days. To them we are public enemy number one. We threaten the vision, the addiction, and the despair that fills their coffers. If we are too successful (and for now our successes are meager) their profits might dry up. Yes, we must be dealt with.

We will only be effective if we preach the unabridged faith, not a faith that is adjusted, not a faith that is subordinated to worldly priorities, not a faith that insists on being “realistic,” not a faith that apologizes to the world no matter how much we water things down. The true faith is revolutionary in the freedom it offers from sin and demons.

Paul and Silas didn’t wind up in prison by preaching a watered-down, domesticated moral vision. They unabashedly drove out a demon that was afflicting a girl; in so doing they engaged in a revolutionary threat to a world that profits handsomely from sin.

2. They threatened power – Calling Jesus “Lord” was a revolutionary threat to the incumbent power that demanded first and full loyalty. Today, many try to make Catholics fit into tidy political categories. Both Republicans and Democrats want the Church to march in lockstep with their party platform. Even many Catholics in those parties want the Church to conform. Many Catholics in fact are more loyal to their party than to the Church; they are more passionate about their political views than their faith. If there is a conflict between Church teaching and the party line, guess which one usually gives way!

In the end, the Church will not just fit into some neat political category. The true faith is too revolutionary to fit into some worldly box.

Thus there is a lot of hatred and anger directed at the Church. Republicans say we’re too liberal; Democrats say we’re too conservative. More and more we are being shown the door, kicked to the curb; our very right to religious liberty is being threatened. Religious exemptions to increasingly pernicious laws are slowly being removed and lawsuits against Catholic institutions are increasing. It will surely get worse as secular systems demand increasing loyalty. The Church must refuse to give that loyalty.

Jesus (not the federal, state or local government) is Lord. Jesus is not Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal. He is God, and the faith He announces cannot be watered down or compromised to fit into a friendship with the world.

No domesticated Christianity will change the world. When Paul preached, the people rioted. Modern preaching too often incites only yawns and indifference.

What should we learn from St. Paul’s arrest at Philippi? That the true faith is revolutionary and threatens the world right where it hurts: in the profit and power centers. As the world becomes increasingly secular, the revolutionary aspect of the faith will become more evident.

Are you ready?

Four Gifts of Grace – A Homily for the 6th Sunday of Easter

The Gospel for Sunday has a number of “sayings” of the Lord Jesus, which together amount to a kind of litany of love. It is a setting forth of the gifts that He, by His grace, is accomplishing and will accomplish in us. Let’s consider the wonderful gifts of grace.

I. PowerJesus said to His disciples, “Whoever loves me will keep my word.”

Here is a fundamental theology of grace: keeping the commandments and mandates of the Lord’s Word is the fruit of His love, not the cause of it. The Lord says that if you love Him, the keeping of the commandments is sure to follow. Note that we do not initiate this love, God does. Scripture says, We love because he first Loved us (1 John 4:19).

No one can give what he does not have, and no one can possess what he has not received. God is the author and initiator of love. Love always starts with Him. The Lord is not setting up some sort of loyalty test here, as if He were saying, “If you love me, prove it by keeping my commandments.” That is not the gospel! The gospel is that God loved us before we were ever born, before we could do anything to merit His love. He loved us when we were dead in our sins, and He took the initiative to love us even when we hated Him and crucified Him.

If we will accept this love, it will enable us to love God with the same love with which He loves us. With His love in us, we will begin to love what He loves and whom He loves. We will love holiness, forgiveness, mercy, justice, compassion, chastity, and generosity. We will love our brethren—even our enemies. Why? Because God loves them. When His love is in our heart, so is His love for them.

Do you understand this? Love enables us to keep His Word, to live it and to love it. When I was young, I dated a girl who liked square dancing. At the time, I thought square dancing was silly, but my love for her meant that I started to love what she loved; I came to love her family, too. If we let love have its way, it changes our heart and our desires.

If you let love have its way you will keep the commandments. The keeping of the commandments is the fruit of love, not its cause. Love is the power of grace at work in us to love what and whom God loves. Jesus says, If you love me, you will keep my commandments (John 14:15).

II. Presence – [Jesus says,] and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.

One of Jesus’ great desires was to restore us to unity with the Father. Jesus was crazy about His Father and earnestly desired to have us know Him and love Him more deeply.

If we will but accept the Father’s love and His shalom, offered through Jesus, we will have a tender and joyful relationship with our Abba, our Father. Jesus often described His Father almost as doting. He is like a shepherd who leaves the 99 in search of the one. He is like a woman who loses a coin, sweeps diligently to find it, and then celebrates by throwing a party more costly than the coin itself. He is like a father whose son effectively tells him to “drop dead,” but who, when the son finally returns, runs out to meet him and has a feast in celebration.

Do you grasp this? The Father loves you and Jesus has reconciled you to Him. Now run to Him; run to Abba, God. If you take one step, He’ll take two, and then He’ll start running to embrace you!

This is the gospel message: Jesus Christ has reconciled us to the Father at the Father’s own request. The Father loves you. Now run to Him and watch Him run to you. He does not want distance; He wants intimate presence, love, and embrace.

III. Perfection – [Jesus says,] I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.

We all know that the Christian journey is not accomplished in an instant. Rather, we make this journey with God, the Holy Spirit, who teaches us and makes us mindful of all that Jesus has done for us and taught us. Little by little, we are given a new mind, a new heart, a new walk, and a new and better life. May God who has begun a good work in bring it to perfection (cf Phil 1:6).

If we are open to Him, He is faithful, and He will do it. The process may be slow, but that is only because we have foreheads of brass and necks of iron (cf Is 48:4). God is faithful and patient. I am a witness; if He can change me, He can change you. He has promised to do so, and He will.

We will be transformed by the renewal of our mind (cf Rom 12:2), for the Holy Spirit will bring to our mind all that the Lord is and all that He taught. Let the Lord change your mind and heart. If He does that, the rest will follow. Sow a thought, reap a deed; sow a deed, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny—and it all begins with the mind.

One of the gifts of grace is the renewing of our mind, and it leads to total transformation.

IV. Peace – [Jesus says,] Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give it to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid. You heard me tell you, “I am going away, and I will come back to you.” If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father; for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you this before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe.

What is the gift of peace? Peace is shalom; it is more than the absence of conflict. It is the presence in the relationship of everything that should be there. Peace is the experience that everything is all right.

For us, peace is access once again to the Father. It is being able once again to walk with Him in love, in and through Jesus Christ. We don’t just walk with Him in some earthly garden paradise, as Adam and Eve did. Rather, we walk with Him in Heaven. In Jesus we are seated with the Father in honor at His right hand.

So, what does it mean when the same Jesus who said, “The Father and I are One” (Jn 10:30), also says, “The Father is greater than I” (Jn 14:28)?

Theologically, we can distinguish two ways of understanding this text. Many theologians emphasize that Jesus is referring to His human nature when he says, “The Father is greater than I.” As God, He is equal to His Father, but as man, He is less than His Father. Other theologians remind us that, even in terms of His divinity, the Father has a certain greatness as the source in the Trinity. All the members of the Trinity are co-eternal, co-equal, and equally divine, but the Father is the Principium Deitatis (the Principle of the Deity). The Father eternally begets the Son, the Son is eternally begotten, and the Holy Spirit proceeds from them both. Because Jesus proceeds from the Father from all eternity, He is in effect saying, “I delight that the Father is the principle of my being, even though I have no origin.”

Devotionally, Jesus is saying that He always does what pleases His Father. Jesus loves His Father. He’s crazy about Him. He’s always talking about Him and pointing to Him. By calling the Father greater, He in effect says, “I look to my Father for everything. I do what I see Him doing (Jn 5:19) and what I know pleases Him (Jn 5:30). His will and mine are one. What I will to do proceeds from Him. I do what I know accords with His will.”

This is the source of our peace. With Jesus, we love the Father and always do what pleases Him. Jesus “goes to the Father,” but He takes us with Him, for we are members of His mystical Body. In Jesus, we enter the holy of holies and sit next to the Father in love and intimacy.

Here, then, are some important gifts of grace. It is up to us to lay hold of them and to live out of them. The Lord promises them to us, so they are ours. If at times they seem distant, reach out and take back what the devil stole from you. These are gifts of the Lord’s resurrected grace.

This song that speaks of peace and presence, not to mention power:

 

Learning from the Early Church: It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.

The first reading from Sunday Mass this week (5th Sunday of Easter) is very Catholic, and it’s too informative to just pass by. It presents a Church as rather highly organized and possessed of some the structures we know today in full form. Granted, some of these structures are in seminal (seed) form, but the are there.

One can detect qualities of the original kerygma that are at variance with what some modern thinkers declare should be the methodology of the Church. The soft Christianity of many today, who remove the cross and replace it with a pillow and who insist upon inclusion and affirmation to the exclusion of all else, is strangely absent in this early setting.

Let’s examine the reading (Acts 14:21-27) and see the true path of priests, teachers, and leaders in the Church. Four steps are prescribed for our consideration based on this reading. We note that they went forth announcing, admonishing, appointing and accounting.

I. AnnouncingAfter Paul and Barnabas had proclaimed the good news to that city and made a considerable number of disciples …

Notice that the happiness is linked to the harvest. Proclaiming the Good News, they yield a great harvest. We are not, as Catholics, sent out to proclaim a mere list of duties. We are sent to proclaim the gospel: that God has loved the world and sent His Son, who by dying and rising from the dead has purchased for us a whole new life, free from sin and the rebellious obsessions of this world. He is victorious over all the death-directed drives of this present evil age. Simply put, He has triumphed over these forces and enabled us to walk in newness of life.

We are sent to announce a new life, set free from the bondage of sin, rebellion, sensuality, greed, lust, domination, and revenge. We are sent to announce a life of joy, confidence, purity, chastity, generosity, and devotion to the truth rooted in love.

Yes, here is a joyful announcement rooted in the cry Anastasis (Resurrection)! New life, the old order of sin is gone, a new life of freedom from sin is here!

Did everyone accept this as good news? No. Some—indeed many—were offended and sought to convict Christians as disturbers of the peace. Some people don’t like to have their sin and bondage called out as such. They prefer darkness to light, holiness, and freedom.

As Catholics, we announce what is intrinsically good news and we ought to start sounding like it by proclaiming it with joy! There should be no bitterness or anger, which would be more indicative of one trying to win an argument rather than joyfully announcing something wonderful, freeing, and true.

II. Admonishing They returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch. They strengthened the spirits of the disciples and exhorted them to persevere in the faith, saying, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Preaching and teaching are processes. You don’t just do it once and then move on; you return and reiterate. Note that they retrace their steps back through towns that they have already evangelized. They do not just come, have a tent revival, and then move on. They return, and as we shall see, they establish the Church.

Notice what they do:

        • Encourage – They strengthen the spirits of the disciples
        • Exhort – They exhort them to persevere in the faith
        • Explain – They say, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.”

Let’s focus especially on the last the point. In effect, they announce and teach, “If you’re not willing to endure the cross, no crown will come your way. If you can’t stand a little disappointment, if you can’t stand being talked about sometimes, if you think you should always be up and never down, I’ve come to remind you: no cross, no crown.”

Yes, beware of crossless Christianity. We do have good news to proclaim, but there is also the truth that we get to the resurrection and the glory through the cross. There is a test in every testimony, a trial in every triumph. There are demands of discipleship, requirements for renewal, laws of love, and sufferings set forth for saints.

Good preaching combines hardship and happiness in one message. It is a joy to follow in the footsteps of our Lord, who endured hostility, hardship, and the horrors of the cross yet triumphed and showed that the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God. Yes, He has caught the wise in their craftiness and shown that the thoughts of the wise of this world are futile (cf 1 Cor 3:20). He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them (paradoxically) by the cross (cf Col 2:15).

Saints Paul and Barnabas announce the cross, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (cf 1 Cor 1:23). Many today insist that the Church soft-pedal the cross, that we use “honey, not vinegar.” No can do. We joyfully announce and uphold the paradox of the cross and must be willing to be a sign of contradiction to this world, which sees only pleasure and the indulgence of sinful drives as the way forward, that exalts freedom without truth or obedience, and calls good what God calls sinful.

Too many so-called Christian denominations have adopted the pillow as their image and a “give the people what they want” mentality. It is 180 degrees out of phase with the cross.

The Catholic Church does not exist to reflect the views of her members but to reflect the views of her founder and head, Jesus Christ. Jesus announced the cross without ambiguity, saying, as he went out to die, Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to me (John 12:31-32).

We announce the cross, not merely as suffering, but as life, power, and love. By the power of the cross, it is possible to live without sin and to overcome rebellion, pride, lust, and greed. It is possible by the power of the cross to learn to forgive and to live the truth in love.

The world will hate us for this, but such hardships, such crosses, are necessary preludes to the hallelujah of Heaven. The Church can do no less than to point to the cross. The center of our faith is a cross, not a pillow, and the cross is our only hope (Ave crux, spes unica nostra!). Yes, the Church announces the cross and admonishes a world obsessed with pleasure and with passing, fake happiness.

III. AppointingThey appointed presbyters for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith. Then they traveled through Pisidia and reached Pamphylia. After proclaiming the word at Perga they went down to Attalia.

Thus, we see the ordination of priest leaders in every place. “Priest” is just an English mispronunciation of “presbyter.” Paul and Barnabas did not simply go about vaguely preaching and then moving on. They established local churches with a structure of authority. The whole Pauline corpus of writings indicates a need to continue oversight of these local churches and to stay in touch with the priest leaders established to lead these local parishes.

Later, St. Paul spoke of the need for this structure in other places, when he wrote to Titus, This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what was defective, and appoint presbyters in every town as I directed you (Titus 1:5).

This appointment was done through the laying on of hands and is called ordination today. It was a way of establishing order and office in the Church to make sure the work continued and that the Church was governed by order. This why we call the sacrament involved here the “Sacrament of Holy Orders.”

Note, too, that a critical task for leaders in the Church is developing and training new leaders. Too many parishes today depend on charismatic and gifted leaders, whose inevitable departure leaves a void rather than an ongoing ministry or organization. This should not be so. Good leaders train new leaders.

IV. Accounting From there they sailed to Antioch, where they had been commended to the grace of God for the work they had now accomplished. And when they arrived, they called the church together and reported what God had done with them and how he had opened the door of faith to the Gentiles.

Note that Saints Paul and Barnabas are now returning to render an account for what they have done. Accountability is part of a healthy Church. Every priest should render an account to his bishop, every bishop to his metropolitan and to the Pope. Today’s ad limina visits of bishops to the Pope is the way this is done. Further, priests are accountable to their bishop through various mechanisms such as yearly reports and other meetings.

A further background to this text is that Paul and Barnabas are returning to Antioch because it was from there that they were sent forth by the local bishops and priests on this missionary task.

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. (Acts 13:2).

Thus, St. Paul was not the lone ranger some think him to be. He was sent and was accountable.

But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days (Gal 1:15-18).

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up by revelation; and I laid before them (but privately before those who were of repute) the gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, lest somehow I should be running or had run in vain (Gal 2:1).

The preacher and teacher must be accountable: For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So each of us shall give account of himself to God (Rom 14:10-12).

Here we see some paths for priests, preachers, teachers, and leaders. We must announce the gospel as good news, with joy and confidence. We must admonish a world obsessed with pleasures (and Church members affected by this mentality) to embrace the cross as our only hope. We must continue to develop, train, and appoint leaders to follow after us. Finally, we must be accountable to one another.

Here is a nice, quick portrait of some healthy traits for the Church.

 

The Legacy of Love – A Homily for the 5th Week of Easter

The title of this sermon uses the word legacy, which refers to something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor.

Perhaps the most accessible image of this is money. If I receive 100 million dollars from a dying relative, I can the money to start living differently. My bills, which now seem overwhelming, can be paid with just the interest earned from my newfound wealth. I can start enjoying things I thought I could never afford in the past. In other words, a legacy can completely change the way I live and open up new possibilities.

It is in this sense that we explore today’s Gospel, wherein our Lord sets forth for us a new power: the power of love. If we tap into it and draw from its riches, we are able to live differently. If we will but lay hold of it, there is a kind of legacy, a deposit of riches from which we can draw.

Let’s look at today’s Gospel in three stages and discover what the Lord has done for us and has left us by way of a legacy.

I. The Provision and Pivot of the Passion – The text says, When Judas had left them, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and God will glorify him at once.

Note how the text speaks in the present tense: the Son of Man is glorified. Judas’ going forth has started a process that is now underway and will, by God’s grace, result in liberation and glorification for Jesus and for us. The Lord Jesus is no mere victim. Everything is unfolding exactly as foretold. The Son of Man will suffer but, in the end, will be glorified. This glory will make available for us a whole new life.

Now this leads us to a question: What happened when the Son of God died and rose for me? This question is not posed in order to receive merely the answer from the catechism. Expressed more deeply, these are the questions: What difference does the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ make for me today? Are they just ancient historical events that are meaningful only because others say so? Or have I grasped and begun to lay hold of what Jesus has done for me?

Scripture says that Jesus’ death is glorification and new life for us: We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the sinful body might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin…We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might have a whole new life (Rom 6:4-7).

In other words, Jesus, the Son of Man, is glorified in His passion and is destroying the power of sin and death by His cross and resurrection. We need to spend our life pondering what happened when the Son of God died for us. It is not merely some historical event. It is that, but it is far more. To the degree that we will lay hold of this saving work, we will come to see and experience the power of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ to put sin to death and to bring new life forth in Christ.

Of this, I am a witness, for I have seen the power of the cross to quell sinful fears, worldly lusts, and endless preoccupations. On account of what Jesus endures for us, He ascends on high not to leave us but to open the way for us to a greater and fuller life. It is a life in which we see sin put to death and many graces and charisms come alive: charisms of confidence, joy, and hope; it is an increasingly victorious life. It is up to us to grasp this saving work and the new life it offers us by the power of the cross of Christ and Him crucified.

This is the moment of glory, the pivotal point of all things. This the glory and the basis of a new life. Because of what Jesus does at this moment, His glory and ours is ushered in; it is all based on this.

II. The Power and Produce of the Passion – The text says, I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another.

When we hear the phrase “Love one another as I have loved you.” we can fall into the trap of thinking, “Uh oh, I have to do more! I have to try harder. Because He loved me, now I, with the power of my own flesh, have to love others.” However, this is not about rules; it’s about relationship. Jesus is not just saddling us with more responsibilities. He is equipping, empowering, and enabling us to love with the same love with which He has loved us.

The point here is to let Jesus love you, to experience His love, and with this love, experienced and embraced, be empowered to love others.

The Lord does not just say, “Love.” Rather, He says, “Receive love and then love with the love that you have received.” Scripture says,

      • We love, because he first loved us (1 John 4:19).
      • As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love! If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love (John 15:9).

In other words, we have the power to keep His commandments and to love others to the degree that we receive and abide—that is, remain—in His love. We love with His love, not merely with our own love.

Do not miss this point! Do you see it? This is the message: by the power of His love and grace we are empowered to love, to keep His commandments, and to see our life changed. Today’s Gospel is not a moralism that tells us to obey a bunch of rules. It is that God has sent His Son, who died for us and rose to give us a wholly new and transformed life, a life that keeps the commandments and loves others with the power of God’s own love, received and experienced.

III. The Proof Positive of the Passion – The text says, This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

We have discussed many times on this blog the fact that the usual Greek word for “know” is richer than our modern notion of “intellectual knowing.” The Greek word for merely knowing something intellectually is oida, but the verb used in today’s Gospel is γινώσκω (ginosko), which refers to experiential knowing, to knowing in a deep, personal, and experiential way.

Thus, the point is that others will notice the legacy of love living us in a very real and experiential way. The faith, hope, and love that we proclaim will not, and cannot, be a mere intellectualism; it must be something that others can see and experience at work within us.

Hence, the proof, the evidence, the picture of God’s love, is not some vague feeling or a mere intellectual attribute in us. It is a powerful and dynamic force that equips, empowers, and enables us to love. The Lord says here that His love is something that changes us in a way that others will notice. It changes our relationships in a palpable, tangible, and noticeable way. We notice and experience its power and so do others.

Yes, we will love even our enemies, and we will do this not out of the power of our own flesh or because have to, but because we want to receive, and have received from the Lord, a new heart and the power to love.

Note also that the love we have will not be a merely sentimental one. It will be a true love, a love rooted in truth. It will be a love like Jesus has, one that does not compromise the truth or water down its demands. It will be a love that speaks the truth but does so not merely to win an argument but to summon the other to fulfillment and flourishing. This is what Jesus did. He loved, but He loved in truth and integrity. Nothing would compromise His love for His Father or the glorious vision and plan of the Father for all His children to abide in truth and holiness.

The proof positive that the legacy of love is at work within us is, first of all, our own transformed lives, which others can see. Second, it is the love that others can and do experience from us. Granted, this love will sometimes challenge and irritate others, but it is a love that is difficult to deny, an integrity that is hard to impugn, a love that, even if disconcerting, is real, palpable, and obvious.

This, then, is the legacy of love. It is a treasure, an inheritance that the Lord Jesus has left us to draw upon. This love is not our work; it is not our wealth, not our power. It is all His. He has left it for us to draw upon. Will we? Or will we make excuses about how we are not able to do the things to which He has summoned us? Don’t you get it? It is not our power, not our love; it is His, and He has left us this legacy, this inheritance, to draw upon.

Lay hold of this power, this love, and let it transform your life. Let it turn you into proof positive of the power of the cross to transform lives and to bestow new life.